The New Atheism of 1903 April 28, 2011

The New Atheism of 1903

Between 1884 and 1910, Charles Chilton Moore created a freethought newspaper called “The Blue-grass Blade.”

A mildly progressive paper in the beginning, the Blade quickly evolved into an outright freethinking pulpit with a strong emphasis on the separation of church and state. The Blade openly supported other controversial causes of the time as well, from women’s suffrage to free trade to “special National legislation to improve the condition, financial and educational, of Negroes and Indians,” while always remaining devoted to atheism, rationalism, temperance, vegetarianism, and any other issue that seemed to cause unrest among the paper’s antagonists.

Sounds like a lot of people we all know today.

Even thought there’s a long history of freethinkers in this country, it still amazes me someone could be that outspoken over a century ago.

Reader Tom was doing some research on the paper and came across the following cartoon from a 1903 issue. It looks like the New Atheists — with their weapons of “cold facts” and “ridicule,” battling against the “pulpit lies” — are nothing new at all. (Click image to enlarge):

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  • Drakk

    What eventually happened to this paper?

    Also – if people think the “New Atheists” are bad, they should have seen the old ones!

  • Corey Mondello

    The history of mankind does not change much.

  • Damned godless atheists supporting equality. What menace will they perpetrate next with their “reason” and “evidence”?

  • marc oberholtzer

    Too bad newspapers are in decline these days. we could use some rational debate right about now.

  • Claudia

    Pretty cool. Even more cool, thanks to the herculean work of the Library of Congress, you can actually browse some issues of the original newspaper online. There aren’t many (only dates in bold contain a file) but there are some. Somewhat disheartening is what I found at the start of one editorial:

    Never, to such an extent as now, has the power invested in the people shifted to the hands of the officials elect. Corporations control our legislatures. Government no longer rests upon the choice and will of the people, but upon the choice and will of the boss and the trusts.

    The date: December 29, 1901

    Some things change, others remain the same.

  • Matto the Hun

    hmmmm… that free-thinker-warrior kind of looks like Dawkins.

    (que satanic-sounding chant music)

  • @Matto: Looks more like Robin Williams to me.

  • Nick Andrew

    Don’t forget the Whip of Ridicule!

  • Matt H

    But everyone knows it was Christianity to spur on the civil rights movement, not people finally thinking for themselves and shedding thousands of years of religious dogma. If it’s good by modern cultural standards, Christianity did it.

  • J

    You can find C.C. Moore’s book online as a free PDF here:

  • Nick Andrew

    Do check out the archive, it is great!

    Here’s a sample:

    Take first the letter of Mrs Henry to me, against my saying damn. Her whole argument is based on that religious superstition that was taught nearly all of us in our childhood, that made us believe that we ought to say damn and devil and hell, only when it became religiously necessary to do so, and that then it must be said with a reverential awe.

    It cost me no little mental struggle to get over that superstition, and even now I have to strive against that superstition of my childhood, just as nearly all of us, of maturer years, have to make a special summons of our reason when we pass a grave yard, at night, to convince ourselves that there really are no such things as ghosts, as we were taught from the Bible in our childhood.

    I could say nearly the same thing today!

  • It’s a little disheartening that we’ve been having the same debate with the religious majority for over a century (longer than that, even – Ingersoll was saying the same thing in the mid-1800s), and yet rationality is still a minority viewpoint.

  • I’ve been reading this newspaper for months now, and it’s heartening to know that the arguments of the atheists of the 19th century ring true today, although some of their science is a little askew, but it’s even more heartening to notice that the religious arguments have evolved and buckled under the pressure of modernization. We owe a lot to the thinkers of this time.

    And I have realized that C.C. Moore was reincarnated as PZ Myers. (tic)

    I’m putting together an e-book, Letters from an Atheist Nation, that consists of letters written in to the Blade from California to Washington to Maine to Florida. I hope to have it available some time later this year.

  • I started @ChilltownMoore on Twitter but haven’t been able to keep it updated. There are a few highlights of Moore’s tone, in case you’re curious but don’t want to lose yourself in newspaper databases.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    Crappy cartoon, since imperialism is aligned with the church, and it seems the wrong tracks of aligning with ‘temperance'(also a religion motivated witch hunt that continues today in the drug and tobacco wars), as well as free trade. One would hope that they were open to ideas of ‘fair trade’, and tolerance.

  • David


    Temperance used to just mean moderation or self-control. So it seems reasonable to think they were arguing against extremism and emotional appeals.

    Claudia- Thanks for mentioning the LC’s work. I’ll take a look at those soon.

  • There have always been intelligent people, even before 1903, but it seems that it’s only recently that more people are actually listening.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    @David- the image looks violently self-righteous to me and may have led to a connection in people’s minds between atheism and nazism.

  • Steve

    The style is hardly unusual for political cartoons of that time. I’d say it’s more or less the usual. It doesn’t really reflect on those atheists so much as on the artistic standards and the tone of political discourse in that era.

  • Allison

    Uh, isn’t that a yarmulke on the guy carrying the sack of money? This cartoon may be less about anti-religiosity, and more about antisemitism.

  • VorJAck

    @David – Temperance used to just mean moderation or self-control. So it seems reasonable to think they were arguing against extremism and emotional appeals.

    No, CC Moore was a passionate opponent of alcohol. He was the grandson of Barton Stone, an important evangelist, and Moore inherited a tendency to moralize, pound the pulpit and publish newspapers. See John Sparks’ Kentucky’s Most Hated Man.

  • Claudia

    Uh, isn’t that a yarmulke on the guy carrying the sack of money?

    Hmmm could be, but then again he seems to be wearing some sort of monk outfit. It sure as hell isn’t a rabbi, and it lacks the hooked nose typical of anti-semitic cartoons. Skull caps were not exclusively used by Jews in any event.

    It still could be, but I wouldn’t call it anywhere near a sure thing. Certainly I wouldn’t have even considered it being a Jew without the sack of cash.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    Catholic clergy also wear a skullcap, called a “zucchetto” or “pileolus. You’ve probably seen the Pope wearing a white one (to match his dress…err, I mean rank.)

    It doesn’t surprise me that atheists could be so outspoken back in 1901. Much of the backlash we see today comes from the fundamentalists, who base their beliefs on The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, written between 1910-15, in reaction to the growing indifference/liberalism of mainstream xtians.
    Today, of course, the fundie sects have the money & the media they never had back then and make noise far out of proportion to their numbers.

  • John Sparks deems Moore to be an anti-Semite a few too many times in his Kentucky’s Most Hated Man, but the proof he provides is lacking any concious anti-Semitism. The proof concludes that chastising the Jews for creating the Old Testament in the first place is anti-Semitism, and I don’t think that’s fair.

  • Michael

    I love how his helmet has a candle on top.

  • The whip of ridicule might be my favorite.

  • That’s definitely a Catholic priest in the skull cap. That’s Bill Donohue with bushier eyebrows.

    And, yes, C.C. Moore was adamantly opposed to alcohol. He didn’t trust in society to consume alcohol in moderation, didn’t see any benefit to society, and considered the use of any “escape from reality” to be an affront to the gift of life.


    I have always viewed civilization as a process. Three steps forward, two steps back. Religious institutions in 1903 were far better positioned to push back against “The Blue-grass Blade” than the religious institutions of 2011 are positioned to push back against the Internet.

  • JJR

    Heck, most of Robert Green Ingersoll’s speeches are still as painfully relevant today as they were when he delivered them in the late 19th century. They’re a joy to read, or hear read aloud by an orator.

    I remember reading on a few atheist websites that it’s good to be familiar with older arguments against theism, such as those raised by David Hume, etc., especially when dealing with opponents who are too ignorant to appreciate a highly scientific and technical rebuttal from today.

  • Seems to me a lot of the “nostalgia” for “old” atheism is based on the assumption that they were silent and accomodating. Worse, that they were reluctant and disappointed that they lacked the “gift” of faith. We still have a lot of these in Italy, and the Catholic Church loves them. They always follow “I’m an atheist” with “unfortunately I lack faith.” Ugh.

  • Michael

    Moore was no anti-semite,have researched his life and writings for over 20 years and was pre empted on my bio by Sparks.A friend who reviewed the book said it was full of gross mirepresentations of Moore,and I also think the title is totally wrong and unfair,Moore was greatly beloved in Kentucky and over a 1,ooo Kentuckians attended his funeral

    Sparks has been an elder in the church and probably could not get over his theism.

  • Anonymous

    @2e21fe29f9bea4a0dae88ce9c7792f41:disqus  The impression I got from reading some issues of The Bluegrass Blade was that CC Moore’s opposition to alcohol was mostly motivated by the hypocrisy of wealthy bourbon distillers attending and donating to the fundamentalist churches in Lexington and the surrounding area. BTW, I read John Sparks’ Kentucky’s Most Hated Man. I was so excited to see a biography about a very interesting man, especially since I live in Lexington, KY. But it was quite a disappointment. While I was reading the book, I could see that Sparks was passionate about the subject. But his passion went to far, he wrote the book in the same kind of flowery and stilted tone of Moore in the 19th century. The author apparently fell in some kind of creepy emulation of his subject. Sparks is even pictured on the back of the book dressed as Moore – too weird. It was a real chore to finish.

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